Monday, July 28, 2014

Thirteen Ways of Looking at an Elephant

1.  There is at least one in every story, often in the living room.

2.  Because of its size, the elephant has become an ironic metaphor, too large to be ignored, yet, by some conventional agreement, banned from being discussed in direct terms.  Violation of this convention is considered grounds for excommunication.

3.  Because of its universal meaning, living room has become a metaphor no less ironic than the elephant lurking within it.  Living rooms are designated areas where characters gather to act and, often, to behave. Living rooms and characters are arranged and furnished to reflect communal ├ęclat and respectability.  One sofa with a sprung cushion, or one character with a soup stain on his necktie, represents a breech of the Social contract. In some living room, a crocheted doily on a headrest of a chair or sofa is prima facie an elephant.

4.  Front-rank characters such as Protagonists and Antagonists have greater potential for being memorable if they have at least one interior elephant and one interior living room.

5.  The conventional wisdom of an elephant never forgetting is an elephant in the living room.  Ask yourself why this is so.

6.  A narrative in which two or more individuals with no trace of an elephant in anything resembling a living room is not a story.

7.  Sometimes an elephant will seem small enough to go unnoticed.  Try explaining that to Mabeth.

8.  Sometimes an elephant will lie about its size and intent.

9.  Sometimes a living room is not a living room; it may be a backyard or someone else's living room.

10. Sometimes a story begins when a character asks, "What's that elephant doing here?"

11.  Sometimes a story begins when the elephant in the living room stirs, rises, then greets one of the characters, wagging its tail.

12.  Sometimes the story ends when the elephant is invited to dinner.

13.  Sometimes elephants enjoy hiding in the living room.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Deals Writers Cut with Conscience and Integrity

Of all the types of stories available, Romance, either by itself or in some cross-over context, still remains most popular, even though many of us who compose understand that the mystery is in many more ways the role model for story.

Mystery forces us to focus on solution.  It brings us to an inner courtroom drama in which our own means, motives, and opportunities are brought forth as expert witnesses in Existential argument.

The words Always and Never are the yeast and dough of argument.  Throw a few of these into a conversation, then stand back to watch it rise to the occasion

"You always say that."

"How would you know?  You never listen to anyone but yourself."

And we are off on our merry way to an argument that could accelerate in excited rhetoric, complete with aggressive gestures, arguments ad hominem, sighs of purported martyrdom which in reality signify raw, unthinking sarcasm.

Much, but not all, of dialogue is argument, a number of contending thesis points rushed into collision within the linear accelerator that is drama.  The "not all" part, those aspects of effective dialogue that are not outright argument, are moments when two or more individuals are talking, each confident his or her line of stated presence is in fact the sole topic at hand, the topic others are interested in following all the way to conclusion. Of course there is this added complication:  Each party believes in the utter logic and rational progression of his argument.

Such boundaries and nuances are the parameters of story, which it becomes possible to describe as individuals thrown together to articulate a common purpose, each side seeing itself as the model of rectitude.  No matter if opposing visions are at opposite poles.  

Story is two or more visions of the moral highground, this itself an irony.  The moral highground is often internal and, thus, more difficult for the outsider to recognize, describe, and, thus, argue with.

Note the ease with which dialogue falls off the horse of argument, landing in a patch of conversation.  At such times, story parts company with the narrative, needing a hand up into the saddle again if matters are to continue.

Your take on the matter:  When dialogue and story are meshed and moving along well, the reader begins to understand that the antagonist will prevail.  The reader wants the protagonist to do something, to step forth with a solution.  But the time has not yet come; the antagonist must win the early arguments, whether by force of argument or ruse or a combination.

Some writers and critics use the term "worthy opponent" in discussing such moments.  True enough, these are critical times. If the opponent is too worthy, the reader might be tempted to root for the antagonist, which defeats a major purpose of story.  Yet, if the opponent resorts to too much bombast, the entire set-up seems rigged, even trivial.  

The wise, seasoned writer, himself or herself a devoted reader as well, will find ways to show the opponent's personal stake in the matters at issue, eliciting enough sympathy to keep the opponent plausible.  We like it best when the opponent has the appearances of a nearly good winner.

The protagonist's impending victory must seem remote, its rightness of cause growing in our awareness to the point where we feel the squirt of fear that comes from our knowledge that good guys do not always win.  There are probably more guilty ones than innocent ones in prison, but there is also the probability that somewhere along the way, a deal was made.

Story reinforces our sense that somewhere, a deal was made, adds to our awareness that we, too, have made deals from time to time, plea bargained out of the more dire consequences of our own actions.

There are few types of story to which these sensibilities and sensitivities do not obtain, which in fact makes us as readers more prone to be argumentative when we enter the mode of composition.

Reading and composing, we are in constant arguments with the deals we've cut with our Conscience, hoping to negotiate a settlement we can live with in some measure of integrity.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

The Coming of Edge Novel

For the longest time, you were attracted to coming-of-age novels.  Many of these novels seemed unstructured, threw young persons into some sort of dramatic crucible from which these young persons were able to effect a cure or solution. 

You believed you had the necessary qualifications.  You were young, unstructured, eager to roll up your sleeves and get at the work of effecting a solution.  If there were no inherent problem or difficulty, you would have been more than happy to cause one, which you would then solve.

Many of these coming-of-age novels were called picaresque, which was one of the earliest Spanish words you learned that had nothing to do with profanity.  A picaro is a rogue, which you were not but wished to be one.  

Many boys of your then age, which is the age before girls play a more significant role, long to be a rogue for the sheer imagined pleasure of it, after which, you would come to a greater plateau of senses by renouncing your roguish behavior.  You'd read Booth Tarkington's The Magnificent Ambersons at least once by then and even at that age were able to see that George Minnifer Amberson was a quite negative specimen of a comer of age.  

Boys of your then age were more likely to be thought of as a rascal, which still has a nice sound to it and at the time was more within your grasp.  Rascals are more likely to sneak out at night, as you did, wearing a black oil skin rain coat and one of your father's Fedoras, pretending to be variously The Green Hornet, Bat Masterson of Wyatt Earp fame, or your own invention, Moe, the Magician.  

You were these individuals as the mood struck you, leaving letters in personal mailboxes, warning persons of your approximate age that their behavior was totally unacceptable.  

As you write this, you call one note written to a girl named Eleanore, in which you complained about the way her laughter at Saturday movie matinees was irritating and inappropriate.  You also threatened Miller's Drugs at Sixth and Fairfax with a boycott if they did not lower their ice cream prices. 

At the conclusion of bookish coming-of-age adventures, the young persons were generally thought to have arrived at some greater status point.  You were at first more interested in becoming the lobster in the pot, the young person in the crucible, the discoverer of the hidden treasure or secret map or solution.  But then experiences, disappointments, and continued reading led you to a return to rascality that has been your companion ever since.

Many of your favorite stories seem to you as active satires and ironic send-ups of coming-of-age, by which is often meant buying into a system that leaches the mischief and rascality out of the young person.  

Your favorite coming-of-age stories are the individual sequences in Twain's consistent take-downs in Roughing It and The Innocents Abroad, in both of which he has at convention, propriety, and growing up by making delicious sport of these plateaus, offering you with each rereading an awareness of how likely it is that you are still, at your age, a naif, still struggling to be a reliable narrator and reader, but still missing clues.

Only last year, when you were preparing a lecture on memoir and you turned to Twain's Life on the Mississippi for what you considered some of the most splendid prose and evocation, did you realize the passage you were after could well have been a great humbug, based on Twain's own confessed tactic of distracting readers with figures and potential facts that were neither accurate not substantiated.

At times when your evening walk begins later than you'd planned and you are out on the streets toward the relative quiet and stillness of midnight, you hear the occasional chatter of a nest of crickets and if you listen closely enough, the mischievousness of coming-of-age stories, sending you little darts of reminders, causing you to think of Humphrey Clinker and Tom Jones, and even the poignant yearning of Holden Caulfield.  

These transport you to what you like to think of as the reverse coming-of-age stories, the anti-Horatio Alger adventures, the pointed, wry, probing of Flaubert and Sentimental Journey, and Sterne's Tristram Shandy.  But most of all, you think about and began to laugh at the rascally possibilities of one of the most mischievous coming-of-age novels of all, Gregor Samsa, Franz Kafka's protagonist in the stunning Yiddish Theater venture of The Metamorphosis, where, perhaps to get back at his father, Samsa turns into a large beetle.  Thus the coming-of-edge novel, your home all these  years.




Friday, July 25, 2014

East Is East and West Is West and Always the Twain

Unless the young reader is born into some family circumstance of unusual intensity, home life is going to be routine, with a measure or two of hum-drum thrown in.  Small wonder that characters from novels, plays, and films became the  beacons for an inner life, paving the way, don't you know, for confrontation and ultimate reconciliation with James Thurber's icon of a short story, "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty."

When you first came upon this story, Thurber was at the point of beginning to eclipse Mark Twain in your estimation.  This was not so much of a crisis as it was a turning point in your own vision of who you were, what you wished to become, and the seeming obstacles to be encountered and vanquished.

You were, for all intents and purposes, between Twain and Thurber.  Twain knew how to send a person on an adventure.  He in fact sent you on several, including your determination to get a job at his old launching pad, The Territorial-Enterprise of Virginia City, Nevada.  

But Thurber was alive and producing new materials with some regularity, including drawings, cartoons, short stories, and dramas.  You were also at the stage where you realized Thurber and his circle of friends had a level of sophistication to which you aspired, influencing your tastes in reading and in fantasy.  

Thurber was also much of the East.  Even though he was from the Midwest, he'd gone to New York, he'd secured a job in New York, he was published in New York, he was performed in New York.  You were fighting--and would continue for some time to fight--the battle between East and West until one November afternoon after your career in publishing had been launched to your near satisfaction.


The wind off the river was crisp, reminding you of the iodine tang of the Pacific and of the way winds seemed to bounce along streets of San Francisco, taking traction the way cable cars gripped their way up the hills.  You were with a group of publishing associates, all easterners but you.  The day had a flavor of chestnuts roasting on street corner braziers, the waft of hot dogs and sauerkraut from the Nathan's and Neddick's stand.  You and your group moved past a Chock Full 'o Nuts restaurant, its spicy Arabic coffee blend adding its voice to the clamor of the street.

You couldn't help yourself.  "This day"  you announced, "is so perfect.  This is like San Francisco."

You felt an immediate group hesitation, as though all five or six of you had been jostled going trough the turnstiles at a subway entrance.  Then you were told their version of the day.  "This is indeed a remarkable day, but this is not like San Francisco.  This is remarkable because it is New York.  If San Francisco is anything, it is like New York."

You were reminded of the famed Saul Steinberg cover of The New Yorker, a map, really, showing the entire continent of North America, reduced to a narrow border against which the largeness and importance of New York proclaimed itself.  And there you were, reconfirmed in your westernness, your California-ness.

Not surprisingly, you have a number of easterner friends, but they have found their way here, and you began here.

True enough, the young reader who was you wanted adventure where ever it was available, and for the longest time, you wanted New York as the natural roosting place wherein to process your adventures.  He wanted New York suits, New York ties, New York literary agents, New York publishers.

Events such as the this-is-like-San-Francisco day meant among other things that your life was catching up with your reading, which is to speak of a number of realizations that it was time to be you instead of characters you admired.  Most of your favored characters now are men and women who emerge from the crucible of story accepting negotiated settlements with Reality or accepting the possibility that their earlier goals were pumped up with the froth of youthful restlessness and impatience.

You are western restless and western impatient, a crazy, haphazard force in search of a story he can run down amid a terrain of mesas, high and low deserts, strip malls, and espresso bars seemingly in the middle of nowhere.  Your favored characters are men and women who walk the city streets as though attempting to disguise the sea legs acquired from reading  and writing too many stories about the far away places of the interior.

You are perhaps more in need of adventure than ever before, because you've moved through the plateaus of the young reader, the YA reader, and the adult reader, where protagonists and antagonists had their work cut out for them.  Many of the individuals you see are back into routines of days at parks or lawn bowls or hobby centers, the focused vision of the character on a quest gone from their eyes.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Plot-Driven and Fast, No Question About It

The man seated across the desk from you wore a suit and tie.  You cannot recall ever seeing him when he was not wearing a suit and tie.  At the time you have in mind, you were wearing a suit and tie; you often worse suits and ties during those days, or if not a suit, a sports jacket.

Some time earlier than this particular day, the man in the suit and tie had given you a book which he inscribed to you, "To Shelly Lowenkopf, a Horatio Alger boy in a Brooks Brothers suit."  The book he gave you was a limited edition, one of seven hundred fifty books, Horatio Alger, Jr: A Biography and Bibliography.  

You did not wear Brooks Brothers suits; yours were from the longstanding rival, J. Press, thus were you in a way taking part in a rivalry between haberdashers for Harvard and Yale, neither of which you attended or had any wish to attend.  

The man seated across the desk from you, wearing a suit and tie did not, so far as you were able to discover, go to a university of any sort; he was too busy writing short stories and novels, and by the time your paths had crossed, he'd turned his attention to motion pictures and television.

Another man who sat across the desk from you and whom you'd never seen wearing a suit or tie, a man whose name is William Francis Nolan, was interested in writing a biography of considerable interest to you, which he proposed to call King of the Pulps.  For a number of reasons, this biography, which would have been the biography of a man born as Frederick Schiller Faust, was never published.  

At least for the scholarly record, such a book should be published.  If it were written by William Francis Nolan, there are strong possibilities it would earn its cost and keep; Mr. Nolan has the ability to cause such things to happen.

Mr. Nolan in fact wrote a number of books for you, including two biographies, two novels of mystery, and at least three science-fiction anthologies.  But the biography of Frederick Schiller Faust remains unwritten (although that opened the doorway to an irony for you), and so far there has been no thought of a biography of the man in the suit and tie who sat across the desk from you on the day of which you speak and on a number of subsequent other days.

The man in the suit and tie, seated across the desk from you, looked at the neat, tidy box you presented him.  "What,"  he said, "is that?"

You told him it was the edited manuscript of the first of four books of his you would publish.

He pushed the box back across the desk.  "Kid,"  he said, "no one edits me."  At the time, he was the story editor of two ongoing television series, to which he'd contributed nearly two hundred scripts.  "I edit people.  People don't edit me."

Unlike a number of individuals with whom you'd had similar conversations, the man in the suit and tie did not project any hint of hubris or bristly defensiveness.  You remained on a friendly working basis until you left the publisher where you acquired the beginnings of a biography, The Pulp Jungle, and collections of his short stories, containing biographical Prefaces.

The man in the suit and tie was Frank Gruber, (1904--69), who was by most accounts a plot-driven writer and who actually listed in The Pulp Jungle his own candidates for the basic story types.  The list of his work is staggering.  

For all Frederick Schiller Faust produced a cornucopia of story, Gruber may well have surpassed his output, his mind cranking out adventure after adventure, whether in the mean streets of Times Square and lower Manhattan or the Old West.

"When I came up,"  he told you, "the pay was awful, sometimes as little as a quarter of a cent a word.  Even then, you had to go to the editor's office and sometimes threaten to punch him in the nose to get your check.  You had to make every moment and every word count.  You had to get up in your cheap hotel room and start typing the minute you had your coffee.  You had to be fast and get it all by the second draft or it was the French key (the hotel or rooming house manager inserting a lead key in the front door lock, then snapping it off to stop the delinquent renter from entering, packing his things, and taking off into the night)."

After Gruber's novel, The French Key, was published, then made into a movie, he never again had to worry about paying the rent.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Keep the Light on and the Door Unlocked for Your Characters and Friends

To be sure, there are men, women, and children swarming about us, some of them quite visible, others, nevertheless swarming, but invisible to us.  We view them with a mixture of admiration, envy, and jealousy.  We see them as the leaders, innovators, courageous ones we in secret long to be but which we know ourselves to be beyond our reach.


The envy and jealousy enter the picture via the door, still ajar, of rationalization.  However grand the achievements of those we admire, we, too, could have been where they are, if only--

The If only trails off into a multitude of excuses.  If only we'd had the time.  If only we'd not had to spend so much time caring for poor old Uncle Fred.  If only we'd not been burdened by the onus of a family mired in poverty.  Then we might have had the piano and the hours to practice on it, memorizing the sounds, positions, and the multifarious sounds.  Then we might have had that pellucid moment in which the memorable lyric or theme came to us.

Alas.  Fate has dealt us blows which had us down for the count, wherein the Cosmic Referee hit seven, eight, nine, and ten while we were unable to raise ourselves from the canvas floor of mediocrity.

No wonder we are so taken with reading.  Small wonder we have our favorites, a list that extends well beyond nice guys.  No wonder we recall so many of those who lived on the margins comparable to the margins on which we feel ourselves residing as squatters.  Even though many of them don't make their way entirely out, many get well beyond where we feel ourselves at this moment stuck, trapped, destined.

Earlier this morning, in your Memoir Writing class, you listened as a woman recalled the time in her early years when he grandmother was reminded by her patron that a girl such as her grandmother had only one career before her, a lifetime of service to a large estate.  

This reminded you of Jane Eyre, about to be graduated out of the orphanage in which she grew up.  Jane was told in all frankness that the only potential employment for her was as a governess, with the implication that Jane was not attractive enough to consider a career as a prostitute.

From such remembrances of things you've read came the litany of the favorite characters of a lifetime, not all of them by any means sympathetic or attractive. The characters either achieved their goals or had a good shot at them, enlisting your belief and support.  In every case, the character had some measure of self-awareness as a cause of your envy.  Why else would you keep the light on and the door unlocked for the likes of The Pardoner, protagonist of his own section within The Canterbury Tales?.

You've met some remarkable individuals in person as well as in print or on film or on the stage, some of the former and many of the latter becoming friends and companions and yes, lovers, too. In a crazy kind of inversion, you judge your friends in Reality by the standards set by individuals in story.  The individuals most dear to you in life have or had the qualities most manifest in books and drama.

You are drawn to individuals with more than the conventional quantity of focus, persons who want something or things with an intensity that by its own nature pushes lesser things off the list of priorities.  In consequence, many of your friends and most of your characters in one way or another bay at the moon, eschew polite conversation for flat-out, passionate argumentation.

With more than due respect and admiration for those who join bowling leagues or stamp clubs or get up early for breakfast meetings of The Toastmasters, you recognize there is some sort of impenetrable schism between you and them at the same moment you salute their humanity and purpose.  You go so far as to apologize in advance if you seem in any way to patronize them, for that is not your intention.

Your intention is to ferret out individuals who might otherwise be lonely, feel themselves on the margins, were it not for some internal drive that makes them want something more, and want it now.

You want nothing less than friends and characters who see life as a metaphor for The Holy Grail, who lose sleep plotting ways to renew their quest.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Same Old Short Story

Fond as you are of novels and, indeed, eager as you are to finish work on a nonfiction work in progress in order to get at a novel that has essentially been filing habeas corpus petitions in its desire to get attention, a visitor to your residence would have a difficulty getting a read on your tastes.  

 That would change when the visitor came to the south south eastern corner, where a dedicated shelf, a reading chair, and the nearby eastern wall betray you.

The closest you've come to hearing from a person inside your small studio living quarters, "You sure have a lot of books," came when a FedEx driver, after your signature, surveyed the arrangement, then observed, "You get in a lot of reading, I see."

Relative to the overall space and arrangement of your living quarters and the ongoing invitations of books to take up residence, you have a noticeable amount of books but not the overwhelming number you had before moving here, thinking to take only a hundred of your favorites.  Nor are you likely to have any guests who are themselves not readers.  Nor do you have that many books in electronic format, lurking on your computers or tablets.

With the possible exception of the kitchen, most of the things of any interest are under stacks of books or surrounded by them, and the kitchen is not by any means innocent of books:  Two shelves are packed to overflow, and the south wall has a badly improvised stack, teetering to the level of the windows.

Nothing to be said about the stairway leading to the main room, its western wall close to becoming a hazard.  Also noting except this scant sentence about the books among the linen shelves in the bathroom.  Thus your adopted and adoptive family, titles you've acquired in the three-and-a-half years of your residence at 409 E. Sola Street.  

You might slip in a sentence or two about books in or about the patio table and, of course, scattered about your car, for what is a car to you without a book or two, just in case you find yourself somewhere with time enough on your hand for a paragraph or two or perhaps even a page.

The bookshelf of your betrayal, which is what this essay is about, is your collection of short story collections, most of them single-author as opposed to anthologies.  But the west wall of previous mention has a number of those.  This is the domain of books filled with your favored reading material, the short story.

The beginnings of research for a course you will teach, featuring the short stories of D.H. Lawrence, got you to thinking about your preferences and your association with your preferences and the times you were caught out in rain storms.  You do not merely think about D. H. Lawrence in the sense of, oh, yes, he wrote poetry and novel and essays and some short stories.  Some is putting it in mild terms.  Some! is better.  At least two thick volumes of them, which you remove from the shelves, where they reside between Ursula K. LeGuinn and Ella Leffland.

In and about this shelf are many of the stories and writers who comprise as much of what you've wished to be from time to time as you could let yourself recognize.  Many of the volumes are inscribed to you by the authors, and one of them, a collection of William Maxwell, could have been, if you'd have trusted the book review editor to follow through on his promise of getting the book autographed.

Looking at the range of authors in these shelves is like discovering aunts and uncles who not only wished you well, they shared the deepest recess of their memories and fantasies and talents with you.  Of course you knew they were not writing for or speaking directly to you, but as you read them, you believed they did, and what is more, you wished to learn their secrets and techniques so that you could write that way, yourself.

Right there between Ron Hansen and Ernest Hemingway is Nathaniel Hawthorne's collection, Mosses from an Old Manse, containing a story you first read at age nineteen.  The story made up for "The Minister's Black Veil," which got you into the trouble of your expressing your views that the story was meant to be funny, reminding you of The Lone Ranger, who was to come.  High school teachers do not favor students thinking a minister who wears a black veil over his face is in any way like The Lone Ranger.

"Ah,Lowenkopf again,"  Mr. Aigner, Boy's Vice Principal, said.  "Why are you here this time?" 

"The Intelligence Office" in effect gave you your own A-Ticket to the Transcendentalist Movement among American writers.  This story is in its way a forerunner of a type of science fiction story where lines of imagination, metaphor, fable, and existentialism intersect.  The story opens with a grave figure, wearing a pair of mysterious spectacles, sits at a simple desk in a small, simple office in "the corner of a metropolitan office."

A number of individuals visit the office, bringing questions to this grave figure providing them answers.  The inquirer who caught your attention for keeps was a man who came in with this memorable quote:  "I want my place!--my own place!--my true place in the world!--my proper sphere!--my thing to do, which nature intended me to perform when she fashioned me thus awry, and which I have vainly sought, all my lifetime! Whether it be a footman's duty, or a king's, is of little consequence, so it be naturally mine. Can you help me here?"

Thus did Nathaniel Hawthorne turn you to your awareness that you, too, wished your own place in the world, and indeed felt that Nature had somehow fashioned you awry.  From this story, you learned that you had to find your way and, in effect, your own identity.  Thus did Nathaniel Hawthorne in a sense become the paternal grandfather you lost to the influenza epidemic before you were born.  He nudged you into thinking about lead characters in short stories wishing to find a place, a true place, a heroic journey of self-discovery, a quest of some sort.

At one time, you believed writing a novel was beyond you, although you did not reach this conclusion without trying.  Later, you found the short stories you'd written to be excellent building blocks.  You threw yourself at the novel with great ├ęclat, telling yourself you would learn your craft not by revising but by writing new ones.

Easy to see you were stalled in the murk or pure, unbridled energy rather than the lessons to be had from focus and asking a great many questions along the way.

The collections of short stories in your south south east wall are simultaneously your questions about craft and your unending fondness for the short form.  There is a relevant story about your encounters with each of the authors in the shelf.

P. S.  Still looking, Nathaniel.